What’s Next on the Ag Business Front? Virginia’s Going Hemp

Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Bettina Ring and Loudoun Department of Economic Development Agricultural Development Officer Kellie Hinkle looked ahead to what’s next at a panel discussion on the rural economy Tuesday.

Unlike previous Chamber of Commerce PolicyMaker Series breakfasts, and appropriately to the topic, Ring and Hinkle spoke at a lynchpin of Loudoun’s rural economy: Fabbioli Cellars, north of Leesburg.

And if Northern Virginia is the economic engine of Virginia, Loudoun is the economic engine of Northern Virginia’s agricultural scene, with just over half of all the agricultural businesses in the region.

Both applauded the continued growth in both Virginia and Loudoun’s agricultural sectors, particularly in Loudoun. Hinkle quipped she competes with Department of Economic Development Executive Director Buddy Rizer to host more craft beverage manufacturers in Loudoun than data centers—a close race, with 44 wineries, 28 breweries, and three distilleries in Loudoun, and just over that many data centers.

But while Loudoun boasts strong farming and livestock, both Ring and Hinkle were also looking ahead. Hinkle highlighted the New Ag School, a tuition-free certificate program launched at Fabbioli Cellars, with a board of made up of wine makers, horticulturists, and other leaders in Loudoun’s agribusiness sector. The classes have both online and hands-on components.

Ring said, “I will do everything I can to open doors” for that program.

Hinkle also pointed to Loudoun’s rural business accelerator, a joint venture between Loudoun and Fauquier counties still under development. And she made the first public announcement of a new addition to this year’s Fall Farm Tour: a farm quilt tour.

Agricultural leaders are also looking out for the next big thing in agriculture, and in Virginia, that means industrial hemp farming.

“The industry is coming, and it’s my professional obligation to prepare our farmers to take advantage of this crop,” Hinkle said. Ring said the state is still expanding support for research into hemp, including studies at state universities and two new jobs in this year’s proposed state budget.

Hinkle said the county has also been working to expand the cut flower industry in Loudoun. She said they’ve already had success drawing one company from elsewhere.

“They’re looking at what Visit Loudoun is doing, and they’re looking at what the Department of Economic Development is doing,” Hinkle said. “They’re saying, you know, my county isn’t doing anything for me. They’re going to dig up 5,000 bulbs and come to Loudoun County because of the environment and the business-friendly nature of Loudoun.”

Attendees of the meeting asked both about the Virginia Cooperative Extension, a program of Virginia state universities—particularly Virginia Tech—that shares knowledge and research across agricultural businesses.

“Extension’s an extremely important partner as we reach out across the board,” Ring said. “We want to do all that we can in this administration to continue to support extension.

Hinkle said the extension is “an incredible collaborator and stakeholder, and absolutely necessary to what we’re doing on the economic development side.”

“Economic Development is looking at those emerging markets and what is the opportunity for new cut flower growers, but we’re not the education piece,” Hinkle said. “We’re not the production side of it.”

“We wouldn’t be where we are with the Ag School if we didn’t have the cooperation and collaboration with extensions, as well as the county Department of Economic Development and few other sponsors,” said Fabbioli Cellars winemaker and owner Doug Fabbioli.

This article was updated March 14 at 2:40 p.m.

rgreene@loudounnow.com
@RenssGreene

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